Good free throw shooting and stingy man-to-man defense can take you a long way in the Illinois High School Association state basketball playoffs.
Trinity’s Blazers held the upper hand in both categories against Evanston’s girls Tuesday night at the Class 4A New Trier Sectional semifinals.
No. 3 seed Trinity sank five straight bonus free throws down the stretch and eliminated No. 2 seed Evanston by a 42-37 margin, ending the Wildkits’ season at 23-6. Coach Elliot Whitefield’s squad had opportunities to tie or take the lead several times in the final three minutes but couldn’t clear the sectional hurdle for the third year in a row.
Trinity (26-5) advances to the title game against Glenbrook South, a 48-40 upset winner over host New Trier in the other semifinal.
Evanston shot just 33 per cent (13-of-39) from the field and couldn’t find a hot hand with the exception of junior Leighah-Amori Wool, who paced a late ETHS rally with 9 points in the fourth quarter and finished with a team-high 15. Freshman SyAnn Holmes added 9 points but the seven other Wildkits who saw action combined for a mere 11 points.
Trinity’s defense had a lot to do with Evanston’s offensive struggles.
“I’m proud of our girls and of how hard they played tonight,” Whitefield said. “But Trinity is a well-coached team and I’m sure they work hard every day in practice on defense. For us to beat them, we needed our three bigs to play hard and for our guards to contribute more.
“It’s not the pressure Trinity plays, but it’s the good position they’re in when they play defense. Their first help is good and their second help is even better. And it didn’t help that we were standing around and not cutting hard. Leighah tried to do as much as she could, but we couldn’t get over the hump. If we could have gotten the lead, I think we could’ve pulled it out on them, but they were able to spread us out, make free throws and use the clock to their advantage. “
Wool, one of five junior starters for ETHS, tossed in back-to-back 3 point baskets after the Blazers had stretched their lead to 37-26 in the first minute of the fourth quarter. Wool added a bank shot in the lane for her own personal 8-point surge and that cut the deficit to 37-34 with 5 minutes, 20 seconds left in the period.
But a Wool free throw and a late drive by Leah Robinson were all the Kits could muster after that.
Trinity broke out to a 16-11 first quarter lead behind Dee Brown’s 8 points. One of the highlights for the losers was the defense that Holmes played when Whitefield summoned the 6-foot first-year player to try to slow her down when several others failed.
Guarded mostly by Holmes after that, Brown only scored one more field goal over the last three quarters, although she finished with 14 points. Forward Kaitlin Aylward paced the Blazers with 18 points.
“For a freshman to be out there in that environment and as someone who needed to contribute, that really showed something about SyAnn,” Whitefield praised. “When we needed someone to step up, SyAnn really did a great job. And she’ll just continue to get better and better. She understands the game and she’s willing to learn. When you’re willing to be coached, like she is, your chances for success will be that much greater.
“Tonight we played that first quarter like we’ve practiced all year. When you don’t come out with intensity and don’t play hard, you’re in trouble, because there are no cupcakes left to play. This was a learning experience for us.”
Under Whitefield’s guidance, the Wildkits have won four straight regional championships and have racked up 91 wins over those four seasons. It’s the most wins in a four-year span in program history, but that fact offered little consolation for the coach following another season-ending defeat.
“You can talk about next year being our year (with every player who played significant minutes expected to return), but you can end up not accomplishing what you should. There are no guarantees,” Whitefield pointed out.
“I hold my players to high standards because that’s something that teachers do. This is not AAU ball. I hope they’ve learned what’s expected of them. I hope everyone learned something this year, especially the younger kids.”
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.